The universal principles of supplying war have been applied in three major periods: the long period of history when war was powered by human and animal muscle; the approximately 100 years from the mid-19th century through World War II, when industrial might changed warfare profoundly; and the modern nuclear age, when weapons of mass destruction and technological change have removed certain age-old problems of logistics and created new ones.
In ancient history the combination of local supply for food and forage and self-containment in hardware and services appears often as the logistic basis for operations by forces of moderate size. Some of these operations are familiar to many a schoolchild—the long campaign of Alexander the Great from Macedonia to the Indus, the saga of Xenophon’s Ten Thousand, Hannibal’s campaigns in Italy. The larger armies of ancient times—like the Persian invaders of Greece in 480 BCE—seem to have been supplied by depots and magazines along the route of march. The Roman legion combined all three methods of supply in a marvelously flexible system. The legion’s ability to march fast and far owed much to superb roads and an efficiently organized supply train, which included mobile repair shops and a service corps of engineers, artificers, armourers, and other technicians. Supplies were requisitioned from local authorities and stored in fortified depots; labour and animals were drafted as required. When necessary, the legion could carry in its train and on the backs of its soldiers up to 30 days’ supply of provisions. In the First Punic War against Carthage (264–241 BCE), a Roman army marched an average of 16 miles (26 km) a day for four weeks.
One of the most efficient logistic systems ever known was that of the Mongol cavalry armies of the 13th century. Its basis was austerity, discipline, careful planning, and organization. In normal movements the Mongol armies divided into several corps and spread widely over the country, accompanied by trains of baggage carts, pack animals, and herds of cattle. Routes and campsites were selected for accessibility to good grazing and food crops; food and forage were stored in advance along the routes of march. On entering enemy country, the army abandoned its baggage and herds, divided into widely separated columns, and converged upon the unprepared foe at great speed from several directions. In one such approach march a Mongol army covered 180 miles (290 km) in three days. Commissariat, remount, and transport services were carefully organized. The tough and seasoned Mongol warrior could subsist almost indefinitely on dried meat and curds, supplemented by occasional game; when in straits, he might drain a little blood from a vein in his mount’s neck. Every man had a string of ponies; baggage was held to a minimum, and equipment was standardized and light.
In the early 17th century, King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden and Prince Maurice of Nassau, the military hero of the Netherlands, briefly restored to European warfare a measure of mobility not seen since the days of the Roman legion. This period saw a marked increase in the size of armies; Gustav and his adversaries mustered forces as large as 100,000, Louis XIV of France late in the century even more. Armies of this size had to keep on the move to avoid starving; as long as they did so, in fertile country they could usually support themselves without bases, even with their customary huge noncombatant “tail.” Logistic organization improved, and Gustav also reduced his artillery train and the size of guns. In the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) strategy tended to become an appendage of logistics as armies, wherever possible, moved and supplied themselves along rivers exploiting the economies of water transportation, and operated in rich food-producing regions.
After the Thirty Years’ War, European warfare became more sluggish and formalized, with limited objectives and an elaborate logistics that sacrificed both range and mobility. The new science of fortification made towns almost impregnable while enhancing their strategic value, making 18th-century warfare more an affair of sieges than of battles. Two logistic innovations were notable: the magazine, a strategically located prestocked depot, usually established to support an army conducting a siege; and its smaller, mobile version, the rolling magazine, which carried a few days’ supply for an army on the march. Secure lines of communication became vital, and whole armies were deployed to protect them. The increasing size of armies and of artillery and baggage trains placed heavier burdens on transport. Also, a revulsion against the depredations and inhumanity of the 17th-century religious wars resulted in curbs on looting and burning and in regulated requisitioning or purchase of provisions from local authorities. Because of the high cost of mercenary soldiery, commanders tended to avoid battles, and campaigns tended to become sluggish maneuvers aimed at threatening or defending bases and lines of communication. “The masterpiece of a successful general,” Frederick the Great remarked, “is to starve his enemy.”
The era of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic domination of Europe (1789–1815) brought back both mobility and range of movement to European warfare, along with an immense further increase in the size of armies. Abandoning the siege warfare of the 18th century, Napoleonic strategy stressed swift offensives aimed at smashing the enemy’s main force in a few decisive battles. The logistic system inherited from the Old Regime proved surprisingly adaptable to the new scale and pace of operations. Organization was made more efficient, baggage trains were pared down and some of their load shifted to the soldier’s back, and much of the noncombatant tail was eliminated. The artillery train was increased, and the rolling magazine was used as the occasion demanded. The heavily burdened citizen-soldier marched faster and farther than his mercenary predecessor. In densely populated and fertile regions, moving armies continued to subsist, by purchase and requisition, on the countryside through which they marched, spreading out over parallel roads, each corps foraging to one side only. Even so, the numbers involved dictated greater dependence on magazines.
Napoleon made relatively few logistic innovations. He militarized some services formerly performed by contractors and civilian personnel, but the supply service (intendance) remained civilian though under military control. A significant change was the establishment in 1807 of a fully militarized train service to operate over part of the line of communication; this was divided into sections that were each serviced by a complement of shuttling wagons—foreshadowing the staged resupply system of the 20th century. The 600-mile (1,000-km) advance of Napoleon’s Grande Armée of 600,000 men into Russia in 1812 involved logistic preparations on an unprecedented scale. Despite extensive sabotage by the Russian peasantry, the system brought the army victorious to Moscow.